After receiving a grant from New York University in August 2017, we went to the town of La Preciosita in Puebla, Mexico to speak with Nido de Aves, a women’s group that advocates for migrant justice and women’s rights. Sra. Benita Martinez started the group as waves of emigration began to strip the community of its men, shaking the familiar family structure to its core. Empty houses are scattered around the steep hillside town, waiting for the families who sent money for their construction from the United States to return. The women chatted with us about the houses, explaining that they were the most conspicuous physical evidence of the changes that have taken place in La Preciosita since emigration picked up twenty years ago. Harder to see are the changes that have taken place within families who are now separated by an impassable border. The community is facing a new reality, one in which machismo is exerted over the internet and grandmothers only know their grandchildren through FaceTime.
But not all Mexican immigrants are choosing to remain in the United States. In the last eight years, over 140,000 more Mexicans have returned to Mexico than have moved to the United States. So how was President Trump able to excite a wave of nationalism when he called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, pointing to what is a statistically less significant migratory pattern than existed during President George W. Bush’s final years in office? President Trump has routinely used the buoying effect of rallying false accusations to his advantage, and in this case he is wrongly focusing on Mexicans moving to the United States. Civil war, genocide, climate change and uneven domestic economic development have contributed to the migration of over 244 million people worldwide since 2015. For many people today, urban residency eclipses national citizenship in utility and meaning, a trend that promises to render physical barriers like the US/Mexico border wall and the current passport system reminders of slower times.
The debate on immigration is challenged simultaneously by a lack of political vision and a genuine identity crisis in cities across the world, the former threatening to overwhelm the latter. Sanctuary City campaigns are only momentary fixes as they lack the foresight and political cooperation necessary to plan for sustained immigration. Many of the men who have emigrated from La Preciosita were drawn to the urban centers of Chicago and New York, places that are undeniably more accessible to recent immigrants than suburban and rural areas. With wider arrays of social services and strong community networks built in compact geographies, they provide the structures necessary for many newcomers to get on their feet. Historically, urban spaces have welcomed the cultural diversity that inspired the many artistic and intellectual movements that branded cities as modern incubators of innovation and, by proxy, provided havens for wealthy citizens to live and invest their money. In contrast immigrants like those from La Preciosita experience fewer opportunities to move to cities outside the global south, as immigration quotas and labor contracts seek to ensure only their temporary residency.
With skyrocketing rents and deteriorating public infrastructure, cities are positioning themselves as places uninhabitable for anyone but the super-rich. If these trends continue, urban spaces may become increasingly home to concentrated social networks in which nodes of connection are unequally distributed among socioeconomic classes. Citizens of urban spaces may find themselves stranded on islands in which populations are separated by a simple binary: are you a member of the ‘virtual class’ or are you merely a user of the digital networks they control? The tech economy, however progressive it may imagine itself, has yet to acknowledge its strain on urban resources, opting instead to implement solutions for its own employees, such as private collective transportation. The average Facebook user is connected to one another by 3.57 degrees of separation, but such levels of digital contact have done little to help us understand the full impact of such connections materially. Many of the women in La Preciosita have seen, via the internet, the environments which their family members inhabit in the United States, yet are unable to travel there and experience them for themselves.
We started Casas Vacías to humanize and localize the immigration debate in the United States. In recording the oral histories of those living on the Mexican side of the border, we are interested in the lived experiences of people who have had their dreams shattered, families broken and physical movement controlled by opaque bureaucratic institutions. Our project is an exploration into the chaos of mass movements of people across nation-state lines and the antiquated, reactive means governing bodies employ to control them. We want to know more about how national borders shape the foundation of our lives today and have become weaponized in political debates. The frequent and perpetual movement of people across national boundaries is a recurrent theme in the discourse of globalization and urbanization, however this dialogue is marred by its retrospective vision and isolationist tendencies. We left La Preciosita with the question: why does information and capital move more freely than the bodies who create it?
ALL PHOTOS BY ISABEL DIETZ HARTMANN
Car leaving Preciosita, 2017
“It was about 20 years ago when the men started to leave. They first started to go to the United States on work contracts. After that illegal immigration started. Via phone or through those who leave, the husbands learn about the lives of their women still living in the community. There are women whose husbands leave and they start to go out with other people. The kids are the ones who are left alone, sometimes without a father or sometimes without a mother, or sometimes without a mother or a father."
Home in La Preciosita, 2017
"Families are living new types of familial relations, because it is not the same talking over the phone as actually seeing each other every day. I have a daughter that left in 2003, she has been in the United States for fourteen years, so I only know my grandchildren over the internet and phone. It is painful because I have not seen her for fourteen years, I have only heard her."
Doña Benita, founder of Nido de Aves, 2017
"Sometimes it isn't easy, because there still exists a lot of machismo. I feel that everything I’ve learned has to be passed to the other women, and I’ll say to the other women “I don’t want there to be dead wisdom” but rather the little that you know you share so that we continue working in this. Wisdom is to be shared and learned by others."
“I Can Go”, 2017
"The hope of giving a better quality of life to their families makes the men leave. But the moment comes in which they are so accustomed to being [in the US] that they forget their families. So the future that they had promised their families doesn't come. It doesn't come. They just make sure they have money to eat, and that’s it."
Empty house in La Preciosita, 2017
"One of my daughters is already back, my son as well, because he was deported. He only was able to make enough to buy a little construction material before he was deported, and then he couldn’t finish the construction of his house."
Axel, with grandmother Vincenta Rivera Guzman, 2017
"When the men leave, the woman are left with two roles. The women stay back acting as mothers and fathers with all of the things they are left to do. A lot of times it is difficult because they have to neglect the littlest kids because they still have to fulfill the role they have in the community. Sometimes it's as if because the men send their women money, they don’t feel the need to participate in something that isn’t an obligation. When we ask other women to join our group, they’ll tell us 'it's just that I can’t' or 'Its just that my husband won’t let me.' Since they are sent money they feel like they don’t need to look for an alternative. This creates tension between some women in the community, because they are women who, well, isolate themselves. They are under a certain control because everything is sent to them, they don't have any reason to go out, and it’s as if they are told ‘you have to stay in your house.”
Burro in front of abandoned home, 2017
Vincenta Rivera Guzman and her grandson, Kevín, 2017
"In my family, both of my girls left and one of my sons left too. I cared for one of my grandchildren for five years and then his mother returned and took him. For my grandson this was hard because he didn’t know them, and so he became very rebellious and it took him a lot to adjust to that way of life."
Elizabeth Naveda Orta, member of Nido de Aves, 2017
Abandoned home in La Preciosita, 2017
"For us the most visible change is the construction of new houses because before [emigration] we constructed houses with adobe and metal sheets, and now we use concrete blocks and brick and make roofs of concrete. However there is a vision that we have. We are realizing that we are losing the customs and old ways of life of the community, but these changes are also favorable because before when the houses were built with metal sheets, the roofs would break whenever it hailed and the families would be stuck without a roof.”
Natalia Caballero Castañeda, member of Nido de Aves, 2017
“I’ll give you the example of Natalia. It took us a lot to get her involved, her family didn't trust her enough to go out. It took us a lot until her daughter, who was studying in University, supported her so that she was able to get out of all this control her husband exerted over her. So I think yes, there has been the confidence to say 'if those women can then why can’t I?' But for some it hasn’t been so easy. For example, I experienced this with one of our former colleagues who was with us at the beginning. She was the wife of the commissariat, and during the time that her husband was in this position, she participated in our group, but once he left the position, no more. She told me 'I don’t want to leave the group, but he won't let me stay.' 'but why?' She says, 'because he says no, that when I leave the house I don't take as good of care of him, and that I neglect what I have to do in the house because I am with the group.'"
Kevín, grandson of Vicenta Rivera Guzman, 2017
"When the parents leave their kids behind, there have been cases of drug addiction, gangs of small boys that form, because they feel alone. The most critical moments are in childhood, when they are adolescents and they choose what they are going to do."
Dog leaving abandoned home, 2017
Centro Comunitario, La Preciosita, 2017
"When people return there are changes. In the Day of the Dead we’ve tried to maintain the customs of celebrating the dead, and they come with the idea that it is Halloween. One time we were talking with a teacher, because she was saying 'we should dress the kids up as witches and vampires' but we said 'no maestra, we are in Mexico, in Mexico we celebrate Day of the Dead, not Halloween.'”
Boy with dog on the main street, La Preciosita, 2017
"Us as women fight so that our kids don't leave. With our community tourism project we want to support our kids so that they don’t think of emigrating, especially now with the situation in the United States. I have nieces and nephews in the United States that say that they only work a few hours to make enough to eat because they are scared that the migra will come and deport them. I tell my daughter, 'come daughter, here you can work, here you can fight' but she tells me 'mama, my kids are already used to a way of life that I could not give them there.' I would feel bad taking away from them the opportunity to keep growing up in the way that they are accustomed."
Graveyard in La Preciosita, 2017
"The saddest part is when we lose someone, when someone passes away, [my daughter] cannot come. Six months ago we lost my dad, and she couldn’t be present. These are losses in which you feel worse because your whole family cannot be there. I felt that she was feeling very hopeless and depressed and we couldn’t do anything. About eight or nine years ago, two of my nieces left and we have never heard from them since. They got lost in the desert and no one ever found them. They looked for them in every way possible, a girl from France who was friends with one of them came and tried to help look for them in the desert, and she looked in all the places where they could be, even for just the corpses, but they never found anything."
Man in La Preciosita with dog, 2017
"The men must leave because here there are no employment opportunities. When you don’t have more than a high school education it is hard because many companies won’t hire you without at least having a bachelor degree. It can be very hard for the field workers, because when there is bad weather they can’t complete the harvest and they lose everything that they invested in the field. For example, if there is a period of drought, there is no harvest. So they have to look for ways to bring resources home to be able to go back to surviving. I think that it is more this, the necessity. Because for some people it went really well, it’s like a trend, 'For him, he left, it went well, I’m going, and it has to go well for me.'"
Molly Taylor graduated from the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized study in 2017, where she concentrated in Urban and Performance Studies. She is now helping her family convert their land in California into a regenerative ranching operation.
Isabel Dietz Hartmann is a 25 year old photographer originally from Seattle, WA and a recent graduate of The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Isabel is interested in identity, namely the interplay between the persona we show to the world and the one we know intimately ourselves. She is not convinced that these are two separate entities, but continues to explore their relationship in her work.
Translation by Madeline Taylor